Who are the Lingayats and what are their demands?

July 29, 2017 08:23 pm | Updated 09:00 pm IST

Around two lakh Lingayats took out a march in Bidar on July 19, 2017, seeking the independent religion status to the sect.

Around two lakh Lingayats took out a march in Bidar on July 19, 2017, seeking the independent religion status to the sect.

What is the demand?

The Lingayats, a numerically and politically strong community of Karnataka, want to be categorised as a religious group separate from Hindus. Followers of the 12th century social reformer-philosopher-poet Basaveshwara who defied the caste system and Vedic rituals, they argue that the premise of this rebellion was rooted in opposition to the established Hindu order. Though Lingayats worship Shiva, they say the concept of ‘Ishta Linga’ (personal god) and rules of conduct prescribed by Basaveshwara cannot be equated to the Hindu way of life. On the other hand, those opposed to the re-categorisation, including sections in the community, say the rebellion was reformist, like the Bhakti movement, and not aimed at breaking away from the Hindu fold.

Why raise it now?

Though the demand for a separate identity is louder now, it is a 40-year-old wish. Many scholars, including M.M. Kalburgi, who was killed by unknown assailants in 2015, have contended that the Lingayat tradition is non-Hindu in spirit. Religious heads too have joined the chorus for a separate identity, including Mate Maha Devi, the first woman seer of the faith who has often courted controversy.

The Akhila Bharata Veerashiva Mahasabha petitioned Chief Minister Siddaramaiah after a convention on July 15. The body had made a similar demand to the Centre twice earlier, which was rejected.

On July 20, a massive Lingayat rally at Bidar surprised both the Congress and the BJP.

What are the political ramifications?

The timing is interesting with less than a year left for the Assembly elections in the State, where Lingayat votes matter in 100 constituencies. Lingayats, comprising 10-17% of the population and listed in the Other Backward Classes category, are a strong vote base of the BJP, and its State president B.S. Yeddyurappa is a prominent leader of the community. In fact, the BJP victory in 2008, marking the first saffron government in South India, is attributed to his ability to capture these votes, which could not be replicated in 2013 when he left the party to form his own, perhaps taking a large number of Lingayat votes with him. This is believed to have had a big role in catapulting the Congress to power in 2013. For the BJP, conceding the demand would run contrary to Hindutva, but it is not a section the party can afford to antagonise ahead of the polls. Mr. Yeddyurappa has opposed the demand, calling it a Congress attempt to split the community. But the BJP has to face up to the challenge of offering the community something that can outweigh the benefits of the status of a religious minority. For instance, the Constitution grants linguistic and religious minorities the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions and Lingayat maths run a host of them. As for the Congress, there is no clarity yet on how many in the community are for or against this demand. In southern Karnataka, some of the influential religious heads have been conspicuous by their silence so far.

What is the way forward?

A State can have little to do with granting religious status to any community. Weighing his words, Mr. Siddaramaiah has said that if the community representatives submit a proposal burying their differences he will forward the demand to the Centre.


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